From the Chinese border we got 2 buses to get to Muang Sing, a town in the North of Laos. Already we felt the difference between Laos and China. Laos felt very laid back and the people are really friendly. The countryside was beautiful and green. That evening we went for a beerlao (pretty much the only beer in Laos but its very good!) and felt very relaxed! We hired bikes for a day and went to explore the countryside and villages and also spent 3 days trekking through the hill villages nearby. We had debated whether or not we should go trekking as you are only allowed to trek with a guide and through a company. This is the government's way of making sure the money goes back into the community (and their pockets?!), but it was quite expensive for our budget. In the end it was well worth it. Our guide was very friendly and a very good cook, although he got quite tired out by the walking! We stayed overnight in hill villages inhabited by the Akha tribe people.
The village we stayed in on the first night had a water supply from pumps the Germans had built in 2001. This meant we could wash under the pumps, but the whole village (the women, children and old people as the men were working out in the fields) came out to watch us washing so we didn't get that clean! Later a villager wandered over to us with a giant mouse/ guinea pig creature tied onto a 'lead' with a string through the skin on its back (we're not really sure what the proper name for the animal is because we'd never seen one before!) and we were asked if we would like to have it for our dinner. Killing it proved to be a little difficult - it came back to life when they were boiling it - but it didn't taste too bad, bit fatty, lots of bones, our guide was delighted that neither of us wanted to eat the head so he could have it! The guts made for a tasty dish with vegetables. The next morning we left for the second village. After a days walking through secluded but shaded jungle trails passing the odd local carrying big loads on their heads we arrived in a large village. Unfortunately half of the villagers had moved out and the rest were to follow within the year as this village had no water supply and life was getting increasingly tough. We had a nice evening wandering around and playing cards with the locals. The kids in Laos seem very happy - they are given a lot of freedom and just seem to play all day! The next morning it was raining hard, but we made it back by lunchtime and got a bus to Luang Nam Tha where we stayed for the night before moving on to Huayxai on the Thai border.
From Huayxai we got a slow boat for 2 days down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang (Laos' second city). When we got on the boat we found more westerners than we'd seen in one place in our whole entire trip - there were about 40 of us. The scenery was beautiful. We arrived in Luang Prabang the following evening after an overnight stay in Pakbeng (the slow boats don't travel at night). Luang Prabang was a nice town to chill out in for a couple of days with some good cheap street food stalls. We visited Kuang Si waterfalls nearby on our last day, the waterfall itself was pretty impressive but there were also lovely clear lagoon pools to swim in. We found one near the top of the waterfall where you could swim up to the edge of the pool and actually look out over the waterfall going down. That night we got a bus to Phongsali.
Phongsali is way up in the North of Laos, a pretty big deviation from our route which had taken us down South a bit and it didn't make loads of sense to go back up North but we had heard good things about Phongsali and were quite keen to escape the hoards of tourists that we had come across! The bus journey took 20 hours in a clamped out old local bus and involved a flat tyre, but it wasn't too bad as we were pretty much the only passengers so there was plenty of room! Phongsali was as we had hoped - very quiet and barely any tourists (I think there were 5 of us in the whole town). It's quite high up in the hills and so it was cooler than the rest of Laos that we'd seen. We had a good couple of days walking around the area before heading to Hatsa, just 25km away but it took 90 minutes in a tuk tuk full of lots of wood and beerlao and not many passengers.
We had already been warned by an American ex-marine that we had met that Hatsa was pretty basic in terms of accommodation. There was just the one guesthouse run by an old lady who showed us to a wooden room with some sheets on the floor and a mosquito net, she didn't speak any English but was able to mime to us that for toilet and washing we must use the river. There weren't really any restaurants either - we ate instant noodle soup for lunch, dinner and breakfast! We got a 6 hour boat down the river to Muang Khua the next morning and then a bus from Muang Khua to Oudomxai which is not much more than a transport hub, we didn't venture far from the bus station (our guesthouse was right across the road) but we had some good barbecue chicken and sticky rice for dinner with some other travellers we'd met.
From Oudomxai we got a bus to Nongkhiaw, a village on the Nam Ou river, where we found a bamboo hut to stay in that had a hammock on the porch that looked out over the river with the limestone mountains behind. It was very peaceful and beautiful and the river was good for swimming in with the local kids. We visited a big cave where the villagers had lived for some time in order to shelter from bombs in the war. Two local boys took us to see some caves further on, but these weren't as good and we picked up several leeches on the way! By this point we had entered rainy season so there were thunderstorms and downpours every day, but they didn't really stop us doing anything as they normally only lasted a couple of hours and tended to be in the late afternoon and at night. We still had to wear plenty of suncream!
We moved on to Vang Viang, a traveller hotspot. Here we rented a bike and went to see a big cave that turned out to be 7km long, but our headtorch batteries didn't take us very far in! It also had a lovely clear lagoon to swim in. We also went tubing down the river. There are many bars along the way to stop for some drinks which have high up trapezes and zip wires into the river, made by the locals and could only be allowed in a place like Laos! Eddie pretty much tried them all, including a big waterslide at the end. It wasn't far from Vang Viang to Vientiane, the capital. Its a nice quiet capital city as capital cities go but we didn't want to spend much time in cities. We ended up staying 2 nights in order to get our Thai visa. They were giving 2 month visas out for free at the time which worked out much better than buying the visa on the border as you can only get a 15 day visa this way.
As soon as we got our visas we headed down South by night bus to the 4000 islands in the Mekong. We got a boat to an island called Don Det that was popular with backpackers and had a nice chilled out atmosphere. We stayed in a bamboo hut with hammocks and an awesome view over the river. We went walking and hired bikes to explore the island and a neighbouring island, Don Khon, that was joined by a bridge. We saw the biggest waterfalls in Asia here and also half heartedly tried to see some freshwater dolphins but to no avail (we werent too fussed as we had seen them in the Ganges). After a couple of days we headed off to Thailand (the Thai border was not far away) to meet some of Alice's friends from home in Bangkok who'd flown out for 2 weeks for a holiday.